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Media Access to Federal Court

September 12, 2012

The Federal Court System seems to favor print reporters over broadcast reporters and by doing so the general public suffers.

In order to understand the court’s media policy, I must first explain that there are two sets of rules which govern news coverage in federal court cases: civil rules and criminal rules.

According to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, “the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”  This means, as a television reporter I can walk in with my notepad and my pen and write a story, but I damn well better leave my camera and tripod at the door.

With all due respect to the Judicial Branch, this is ludicrous!

The powers that be have been debating cameras in courtrooms since 1972 and basically have gotten nowhere. The Judicial Conference is currently conducting a three-year pilot program where they examine the effects of cameras on district court proceedings. The pilot is limited to civil cases only, because remember… cameras in criminal cases are strictly prohibited!

While the pilot program is a step in the right direction, the courts are still missing the point. This pilot allows the courts to record the proceedings NOT the press.

On July 31, 2012 the U.S Courts issued a press release recapping the first year of the pilot program.  Judge Julie A. Robinson is spearheading the project and is quoted saying, “It is encouraging that so many civil proceedings are now available online for the public to see, as if they were in the courtroom themselves.”

It is encouraging. However, it’s not enough.

The Federal Court System is clearly behind the times and its antiquated media policy is forcing television reporters to act more like paparazzi than real journalists.

When television reporters want to cover a federal court case, they have to stand outside the courthouse and chase down the parties in order to get video to tell the story. It’s completely ridiculous. In fact, the lack of access to the courtroom acts as a deterrent for TV reporters. Why should I have to change my medium just because a judge refuses to change with the times?

Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Those opposed to cameras in the courtroom believe it will negatively impact the outcome of the court proceedings.

Judge Jan DuBois participated in the pilot program. She said, “In my opinion, cameras in the district court could seriously jeopardize [the right to a fair and impartial trial] because of their impact on parties, witnesses and jurors.”

The Judicial Conference claims, “The intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors is cause for concern.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “We don’t want to become entertainment. I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of real people’s legal problems. I don’t like it in the lower courts, and I particularly don’t like it in the Supreme Court.”

Making the Point

The State of Montana allows cameras in every courtroom. I have covered cases in Justice Court, District Court and the Montana Supreme Court. In every situation, the judges are flexible, accepting and open. They allow and welcome the press.

I genuinely do not believe the integrity of their courtrooms have been negatively impacted by the presence of cameras. In fact, I believe it holds them accountable for their decisions and allows the public to see the importance of what they do everyday. Kudos to the judges here in Montana who believe in public access to the judicial system and accountability in government.

I just hope our federal partners will take a lesson from Montana and open their doors to the 21st century and embrace the modern technology that reporters are using.


News: Should it be free?

April 15, 2012

More and more news organizations are charging for online content, and while this isn’t well received by the public there are valid arguments which support the practice.

The New York Times is once again reducing access to its news products. Now news junkies will only get ten free internet articles a month. Previously, the paper gave away twenty articles and any clicks after that had to be purchased.

The Times claims, “This change will strengthen our ability to continue providing the world’s most insightful journalism today.”

It is evident the NY Times is trying to get all of its online news consumers to purchase a digital subscription, which costs $3.75 / week or $195 / year.

The Times started charging for online content in March of 2011. Soon after, local newspapers also started charging for web products. Lee newspapers in Montana have established a pay wall with the hope of making a profit off its website.

These changes have not been greeted with public support. When the Helena Independent Record announced it would be charging for online content, area residents were outraged.

One reader commented, “I understand that times are tough in the newspaper business and that publishers are looking for new revenue sources. But asking subscribers of the print edition to pay extra to access the content online that they’ve already paid for is really an insult.”

I understand change is difficult especially when it comes to things which impact our wallets. However, I believe if these changes aren’t embraced we will all see a decline in the quality of news.

Television news has always been financially supported by advertisers (public broadcasting serves as the only exception).  However, advertisers are not paying for the news. They are paying for a product. In return for their money, they receive a 30 second clip on television. The ad revenue is then used to subsidize the newsroom.

I would argue that news is also a product and shouldn’t be free.

Television viewers can watch the evening news for free, all they need is a tv and antenna. TV news consumers haven’t ever been forced to pay for news, which might explain the tight news budgets reporters operate under.

I question this model. Why should news organizations give away their product for free? Despite the fact that it has been treated as such, news is not an entitlement.

Newspapers have done it right, they charge for subscriptions. While subscriptions aren’t single handily supporting the newsroom, the practice of charging for news is smart.

The public demands to know what is going on in the world, and yet people gripe when they have to pay for the delivery of the information. Disseminating information isn’t cheap. It costs money to bring you the news, even online.

At Montana’s News Station we have online producers whose only jobs are to post web stories, manage social media sites and make sure information is getting out to the public. We don’t charge for our online content, viewers can simply click and get their news for free.

How long that will continue to be a sustainable business model?

When the Helena IR went to a pay wall model, people criticized the quality of the news and said it wasn’t worth the money. I wonder what would happen to the quality of newsrooms if they charged a fee for news and used the revenue to beef up the newsroom. I would bet people would see more news and a higher quality of reporting.

TV is glamorous… Right?

April 12, 2012

The studio lights, the cameras, the fame, and oh the fortune of television journalism, it sounds alluring right? Think again. The life of a television journalist may have its perks but as far as being a desirable career, think again.

Careercast just released its “Top 200 Jobs of 2012” list and I am proud to say Broadcaster ranks #191 on the list. The list was compiled based on four criteria: work environment, stress, physical demands, and hiring outlook. Careercast defines Broadcaster as someone who prepares and delivers the news and related presentations over the air on radio and television. Further down the list at #196 is Reporter: someone who covers events for newspapers, magazines, and television news programs.

I’m not sure what category I fit into, but all I know is that my career isn’t a “Top Job” and I can explain why.

While television journalists have a higher earning potential than any other type of journalist, the likelihood of making six figures is out of reach for most. Katie Couric was paid a whopping $15 million to anchor the CBS Evening News. However, most television reporters in Montana start out making around $20,000 / year. From what my colleagues in the newspaper industry tell me, this is about $7,000 – $10,000 less than print reporters make starting their careers in Big Sky Country. This is why most tv journalists come to Montana, get their two years worth of experience and leave for a bigger market. The turnover in this industry is ridiculously high.

Television reporters carry heavy work loads. On an average day television reporters produce 3-5 stories. This means doing everything from scheduling and shooting the interviews, to writing, editing, and voicing the stories. Most reporters in small market television carry their own cameras and work as their own photographer. In bigger markets there would be one person scheduling and assigning the stories, one photographer, one editor and one reporter. Here in Montana, one person does it all.

Television journalists work on strict deadlines. If it isn’t done on time, it doesn’t air. If it doesn’t air, the reporter has just wasted a day and most likely the story won’t be relevant tomorrow. The pressure to get stories done is high.

Often times reporters see and hear things that are emotionally taxing. It isn’t uncommon for a reporter to beat law enforcement to the scene of an accident, fire or crime. Reporters read descriptive court documents about murders and rapes. They hear the heart wrenching testimony of victims and criminals. After a while it can take a toll on the reporter.

Public criticism can be ruthless. Television journalists work in a field where people are judged on their appearance and ability to communicate effectively. If someone is overweight, can’t read, looks bad in red, or has ugly hair they will hear about it. Viewers call in and gripe about how the meteorologist can’t pronounce her Rs correctly, or how a reporter looks shady when he wears glasses. These are on top of the complaints about being bias, unfair and inaccurate. Public criticism can be hard for anyone to swallow.

With all that said, I must admit I have a cool job. I am often the first person to know, and if I’m not, the person who knows will tell me right away. I have access to the movers and shakers, the policy makers and the people whose lives are impacted by change. I have an outlet to expose the truth and even in some cases spur change. The rewards aren’t monetary, but they do exist… even if it isn’t a “Top Job.”

The Dying Art of Journalism

August 22, 2011

Journalists are reliant upon press releases, communication directors, and public relation firms to do their jobs. I’m as guilty as most. My inbox is inundated with information everyday, and I rely heavily upon these so-called “gatekeepers”  to provide me with information so I can write a story.

However, the age of media relations departments are slowly killing investigative journalism. When the story isn’t favorable for the main character the information is either locked up in “no comments” or bundled nicely in a press release for all journalists to regurgitate verbatim.

Instead of picking up the phone and calling a person directly you must go through the media contact. If you try to skirt around the PR person you find the people with the information unwilling to comment for fear of violating protocol.

This typically isn’t a problem for journalists during the day-to-day news grind, but it becomes a significant problem when a reporter decides to cover a story which doesn’t have a press release.  As a reporter there is nothing more frustrating than writing, “John Smith declined to comment.,” which really means the PR person doesn’t want Mr. Smith talking to the press. So then reporters are stuck with a half written story and news consumers are left with questions, questions like why did Jim Lynch really leave the Department of Transportation? Is Steve Bullock running for Governor? What is Governor Schweitzer doing after he is termed out? What is Senator Baucus’s plan on the super committee?

I understand why “gatekeepers” exist. They protect certain individuals and entities from news stories which may paint them in a not so favorable light. They like to control the message. They’re on damage control.

However, media contacts are also paid to help journalists filter through the loads of information and pull out the story. They do have great value to reporters.

However, media relations departments have led to lazy journalists who rely on the press release to get the story.  Many reporters don’t know how to write a story without it being fed to them. I confess I have fallen into this trap too. The spoon fed journalists greatly outnumber those willing to roll up their sleeves and look beyond the neatly packaged messaging. Finding stories is an art and a skill. It’s something journalists need to do better.

Expect more from television reporters

October 13, 2010

Now I know the bar hasn’t recently been set very high, especially in this market, but that needs to change.

Helena and Montana in general is a starting place for many television reporters. It is the bottom of the barrel as far as DMA Rankings go. Out of 210 television markets, Helena ranks 206 just ahead of Juneau, Alaska and yes Alpena, Michigan. Where is Alpena? Well, Michiganders ask themselves that same question about Helena.

Television reporters are constantly chasing the next best market and the next two-year contract. So when someone moves here from Florida for their first job, Montana viewers shouldn’t expect them to stay long. The reporter wants to get to a bigger market where they don’t  make wages comparable to poverty level. Do I blame them? Heavens no!

I think the problem exists when viewers begin to expect a novice reporter, like myself, to do a sub-par job in the field.

Just because a reporter is fresh out of college, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to ask tough questions, write a strong story and put together a meaningful news product. Unfortunately, this has become the norm and what is expected.

I acknowledge most reporters, like myself, who run through this market stumble and make mistakes. However, I don’t believe this should be the excuse for blubbering idiots and missing the point stories. After all, we did go to school for this, and Helena viewers deserve more.  Just because the viewers live in a smaller town, it doesn’t mean they are any less educated or their issues matter any less.

So, as a consumer of news, I urge you to expect more… and if we aren’t delivering you do have the remote.

Reporters double as bloggers

September 3, 2010 is a search engine for the blogosphere.  Every year it releases a State of the Blogosphere report.

In April of 2006 it released a report stating someone is creating a new blog every second. Then in 2007, that number increased to 1.4 blogs every second of every day. I couldn’t find the numbers for 2008 and 2009.

Many news outlets have stepped behind blogs as a part of their effort to inundate the world with information. 

“We are also noticing an ever-increasing overlap between blogging and mainstream media,” Matt Sussman, writer for Technorati says.

It is common to see a reporter not only producing content for the evening news, or morning paper; but also producing additional content for the website, Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

So in an effort to jump on the bandwagon, I am launching “The Banks Account.”